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Transcript from an interview with Dav Pilkey

Dav without an e

My name is Dav Pilkey and it’s spelled D-A-V, P-I-L-K-E-Y.

I used to be a waiter at a pizza restaurant, and they were making a nametag for me. Do you remember those old-fashioned label makers with the red ribbon, you know, and you go [makes noise] and you turn the dial and — well, the letter E was broken on it so they printed out D-A-V and then they got to E, it was like [makes noise].  So it just — my nametag said D‑A‑V and it’s just stuck.

I was never into sports, and I was always the youngest kid in my neighborhood.  So I didn’t want to hang out with the other kids so much.  I just liked to stay at home and draw.  And it was one of the things that I was good at, and I drew all the way through school. And it was one of my — it was one of the only things in school that I was good at actually.

The classroom storyteller

My experience in elementary school was not a very positive one. I was diagnosed very early with what they now call ADHD. Back in my day they called it extreme hyperactivity, but I was not fitting in very well in the classroom.  I was misbehaving a lot.  I was the class clown.  I was also diagnosed with dyslexia. So I had a lot of challenges growing up in school. I felt very alone in a lot of ways.

The experience of having all these challenges in the second grade was very isolating. In fact, literally isolating sometimes because my teacher would just, you know, point to the classroom door and say, “Mr. Pilkey, out,” and I’d have to go sit out in the hallway usually for several hours every day where I was separated from the classroom.

And so I didn’t want to be known as the kid who was always out in the hall, and I didn’t want to be known as the kid who couldn’t read very well.

So I focused on my drawing. That was one of the things I was very good at.  And I drew a lot of pictures and I eventually started making up my own stories and characters and pretty soon I was making comics.  And so I kind of became known as the storyteller in my classroom.

Socially in school I did pretty well.  I think most of the kids liked me, and I liked them as well.  I really — it was very difficult being sent out in the hallway, especially for me being isolated from my classmates so often. But I think being a friendly kid and being able to draw was kind of an icebreaker for me.

Inventing Dog Man and Water Man

In second grade I think the very first comic book creation that I came up with was a character named Dog Man. And he started out — he’s a little different than he is now. When I was a kid, he was a dog who just kept getting struck by lightning at all the right times, and every time he got struck by lightning, he would gain super powers and he would grow a cape magically and he would save the day.

One of the things I loved about making comics was showing them off to my friends in school, and they were very receptive to them too. They always wanted to — they were always asking if they could take my comics home and read them to their brothers and sisters. And so it was a real feather in my cap being the classroom storyteller.

My parents were very, very supportive of my drawing — drawing and of my storytelling, and I’m very grateful to them because one thing they noticed is that my teacher was not real happy with the stories that I was telling and the drawings that I was doing and sometimes she would take them away and rip them up. And so my parents, they actually commissioned a series of comic books from me.

They asked me if I would draw a series of comics just for them.  And so when I was in fourth grade, I made a series called Water Man, which was a guy who was made out of water. And I made 20 comic books for them and they saved them.  That was one of the rules, I was not allowed to bring them to school, and they saved them. And when I was in my early twenties, they gave me all the comics back. So they’re some of the very few surviving comics from my childhood.

Origins of Captain Underpants

Captain Underpants came to my mind actually in the second grade, and it was a story that I still remember quite vividly. My teacher was talking to the classroom, and we were sitting there listening and looking off into space and for some reason she said the word underwear, and everyone just burst out laughing. And this annoyed her to no end and she was like hey, underwear is not funny, and we just laughed even harder.

And I remember thinking wow, that’s a good idea for, you know, I should do something with that. I should make a book and so I started drawing Captain Underpants that day, and I’ve been drawing him ever since second grade.

I think one of the reasons why Captain Underpants has resonated with so many children is because of the two boys that star in the books, George and Harold. I think that the idea of their friendship and their closeness and also their creativity together — they’re always making comic books and they’re always using their imagination.  I think kids really relate to that because in a way everybody likes superheroes, but none of us can fly.  But we can all use our imagination and we can all use our creativity. And in a way that’s kind of an attainable super power that we can all have, and I think that’s what kids are drawn to.

One of the things that I hope will come about with my books is that adults and children will read the books together. So I always put little jokes in for the grownups. A lot of times they fly over the kids’ heads, but people my age will get the jokes and they’ll be like ha, ha, ha.  And that’s really nice.  It’s a good experience for kids and adults to read together.  It was one of the things that was really important to me as a child. My parents always read with me. And I think that was another thing that turned me into a reader.

Struggles with dyslexia

Having dyslexia was another isolating thing in my life. It was very, very tough being the only kid in class who couldn’t read as well as everyone else, especially if we had to read out loud. It was very, very difficult.  When it was my turn, the other kids would be like [sighs loudly], you know, because I’d be struggling to get through my books. But my mom was very, very helpful to me because she would take me to the library every week and she just wanted to make sure that I was always, always reading.

And so she let me pick out whatever books I wanted, and there was no judgment whatsoever. She just wanted to make sure that I was always reading. And I would pick out fun books and joke books and books that I’d read a thousand times, and she didn’t care. As long as I was reading, that was fine, and that’s what changed my life.  It really turned me into a reader.

I think reading is like a lot of other things in life; the more you do it, the better you get. And for me, having the focus beyond fun was so important to me. Everything I read — I would read things for homework and I would read things because we had to, but I loved to read for fun and because it was such an important part of my home life. My parents were always encouraging me to read for fun.  That was what really made the difference for me.

Dyslexia and graphic novels

I think one of the reasons why graphic novels are so popular at least for me is because they’re a great way to take in a story. With my dyslexia, the type of dyslexia that I have, it’s very difficult for me sometimes to handle a large block of text and especially if you have page after page of large blocks of text, it can be overwhelming sometimes.

But with graphic novels they take those large blocks of text and they break them up into little panels that are very easy to digest. And when they include illustrations with the text, the illustrations tell part of the story and they give contextual clues to the meanings of the words. So not only is it a great way to read a story, but it’s also a great way to tell a story.

Thanks to two teachers

I had two teachers who really helped me. My kindergarten teacher was very, very supportive. She was the first person who pointed out that I was the classroom artist, which was a big surprise to me because my parents had always been supportive, but you kind of expect your parents to be supportive, but when an outsider tells you that you’re very talented it really meant a lot to me. So my kindergarten teacher was very helpful. And then when I first got to college, one of my early professors in English pointed out that I was — that I had some potential in writing and she encouraged me to write children’s books. And her encouragement was a great boost to me also.

Tough times in high school

I had a lot of high school teachers who discouraged me. Yes. Yeah.  I think I’ve been — I had been discouraged a lot by teachers in my life.  I had one teacher in high school who encouraged me to throw all my comics away. She did not like my comics at all, and that was a huge regret.  I was still making comics in high school, but I’ll never forget the day they all went into the garbage, and it was a real tough time.

Oh, this is a tough story. I went to a very religious school.  And my teacher was convinced that I was possessed by a demon.  And so she thought that my comics were a result of demonic possession and so she said the only way to get rid of this demon was to throw them all away. And so I wanted to — I wanted to do well and I wanted to — I wanted to feel better and I threw my comics away.

My parents were the best teachers in my life. Their encouragement and the safety that I felt when I came home was the thing that really saved me from all the discouragement that I was feeling in school.  To come home and feel like I could be myself, to feel like I could read whatever I wanted, to feel like I could draw and create stories and just explore in my imagination and explore my creativity was the thing that really saved me.

The heart of a school

Well, my experience with schools nowadays is very, very different from when I was a child. I was just at a school doing a school visit a couple days ago and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The principal and the teachers were so involved with the kids.  There was so much heart in that school.  You could feel it in the walls and in the floors.  There was so much love in that school.  And there was also a lot of need in that school, in that community, but everyone came together in that school, and it was really changing the whole community.

And I see that so much nowadays. I think the world is really changing because of the love and the support of teachers and reading specialists and principals and administrators, people really coming together to — for the kids.

I think I have seen a lot more acceptance for kids who don’t quite fit into the regular student role and maybe for kids who have challenges like I did. There seems to be a lot more resources now.  So teachers are better prepared to deal with kids who don’t quite fit in.  And there seems to be a much better experience all around.

Dav Pilkey’s message to kids with learning differences

I had such a hard time as a kid growing up in school feeling like an outsider, feeling very alone and feeling like I had so many challenges and feeling like a failure. And I know that there are a lot of kids out there who are going through some of those feelings as well.  Even though there are so many more resources out there, it’s very — it’s very common for kids to feel alone with their challenges.

And I think — I don’t know. I think it would have been very helpful for me to know that you can have challenges and you can still turn out okay.  That was something I didn’t really hear too much of when I was a kid, and I wasn’t sure that things would work out for me, but there are so many resources out there. If you look online, people who had ADHD or have dyslexia and grew up and turned out okay became successful. I think it’s important to look at the success stories and to realize that there is hope for everyone.

I think if I could go back, I would have actually talked to myself and I would have said don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to work out okay.  Just stay true to yourself and try to focus on the positive and listen to your mother.

Connecting with young readers

I think one of the best ways I can connect with my readers is actually to meet them. That’s actually my favorite part of my job is to go out and to shake hands and to sign books and to talk to the kids. Last night we had an event with over 1,200 children and parents and teachers and librarians and reading specialists and it was so much fun to get together and share with them and really connect.

Kids will always tell me what they like about the books and who their favorite characters are. And right now children are really into Dog Man it seems like that and also Captain Underpants because I think the movie was a big boost for the books.

Kids are very honest, especially when I meet them in public.  A lot of times they’ll just tell me things that I already know like you’re sweaty or, you know, you’re — you don’t have very much hair, you know. Like well thanks. Thanks. Yeah, that’s true as well. But a lot of times they’ll say things like, you know, I like to draw Dog Man and they’ll show me a comic book that they made, and that is really meaningful to me.

A lot of times they’ll even give me comics that they’ve made for me, and I love to take them home and look through them and, you know, laugh at the jokes and the stories. It’s a lot of fun.

Becoming a writer

I think the moment that I felt like perhaps writing and illustrating could be a profession for me was when I was in college and I had a teacher who took me aside one day and she said, “Dave, you are a very good writer and I love all the cartoons in your notebooks.”  I was supposed to be taking notes, but I was drawing cartoons instead. But she said, you know, “Have you ever thought about writing children’s books?”  And I had never thought of that up until that very moment, but that sent me on the course that has led me to here.

My first book was called World War Won. Won was spelled W-O-N so it was not a historical book; it was fiction, but it was the very first children’s book that I had written. And I sent it into a contest. Many years ago there was a national contest for students, and if you won the contest, they would publish your book and so that was my introduction into publishing. At the age of 19 I won the contest for my age category and they published my book.

Having my book published at such an early age was an incredible boost to my self-esteem. And I was very lucky because I got to go and be sort of a traveling author and I got to go all over the state of Ohio where I grew up and speak at schools and talk to children.  And so I talked about my experience sitting out in the hallway as a child. And I talked about some of the comic book characters I created when I was a kid.

And I would always mention Captain Underpants, and it always brought the house down. And so at the end of all my speeches all the kids would raise their hand and they’d be like, “Are you ever going to make a book about Captain Underpants?” And so I was like hmm, maybe I should do that.

After that I made a few more picture books and then I started to try to get Captain Underpants published. And I made a dummy for the book and I sent it out. It got lots and lots of rejections, but finally it found a home at Scholastic.

I used to be a paperboy myself and so that was kind of a — sort of a meditation or almost a reflection on being a child and being very independent and having a job at the age of 12 and being on your own and riding your bike through the neighborhood when it’s all quiet.  It was a nice vision to explore.

Some of my books are serious. Most of them are funny. But I do have a serious side as well. And I did a lot of serious books, a lot of serious picture books — well, actually three or four — before Captain Underpants came along. But I remember one time I was doing a book signing and some children came up and they were — I was signing a book that I had done called God Bless the Gargoyles.

And the children said oh, we love this book because every time my mommy reads it, she cries. And I was like oh, I felt so bad. I was like oh, maybe I should start focusing on funny books because there are plenty of things in this world that make people cry. Maybe I’ll focus on funny books from now on.

Perseverance

I was rejected so many times. I remember a book that I did called ’Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving and it was rejected 23 different times before a publisher finally took a chance on it. And it was very difficult with the rejections, especially so early in my career. I started to feel like maybe this wasn’t the right path for me. But one of the things that you really have to do is stick with it, you know.  Not everything comes easy and you have to keep putting yourself out there and keep trying.

I think the thing that made me continue is having earlier success. I had already had one book published, and I was still doing the visiting author thing and doing a lot of school visits and meeting a lot of children. And I think for me back then and still now that was my favorite part of the job is meeting so many wonderful teachers and wonderful students and connecting with so many people through my artwork. So that was one of the things that encouraged me to not give up, to keep putting myself out there, keep trying.

The genius of Charles Schulz

One of the writers that I have admired my entire life is Charles Schulz who did the Peanuts cartoons, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And when I was a kid, I would just plop down on the floor with my newspaper and read them over and over again and I would bring out a stack of paper and a pencil and I would try to draw them. And so he was so influential not only to my sense of humor but really to my drawing style as well.

The way he drew with such simple lines. He could put so much expression in a face with just a little dot here and a dot there and a little [makes noise]. And you could feel like you could peek into that character’s soul with just a few dots. And I really admire how that could be — such a profound thing could be presented so simply.

Drawing through the eyes of a kid

I feel like my drawings have evolved over time. I think that probably happens with everyone. The more you practice at something, the better that you get and so I think that’s true with me.

Well, one of the interesting things with my drawings right now is that I’m really with the Dog Man series especially I’m really drawing through the eyes and imaginations of fourth graders and now fifth graders. So they are trying to draw in a childlike style. They’re actually looking back to what they drew when they were in kindergarten and trying to copy that.  So I’m drawing through the eyes of fourth graders who are trying to draw like kindergartners and trying to also be very expressive.

So sometimes I’ll draw a picture and I’ll realize oh, I drew that too well and I have to erase it and redraw it so it’s not as sophisticated.  And it’s quite a challenge actually.

Well, getting in the mindset of a 10-year-old is probably one of the easiest things for me because I’m incredibly immature. I’ve always — I always thought like a kid, and I think there’s a big part of me that’s really never grown up.

I feel like I know the characters of George and Harold so well. When they started out, they were pretty much like me. There was kind of a — I can be different people at different times as we all can. Sometimes I’m very outgoing. Sometimes I’m very quiet and shy so I took those two sides of my personality and divided them into George and Harold, but over the years they’ve grown into their own characters and I feel like I know them so well that I can kind of channel them pretty easily.

Humor is subjective

My books have been banned at times. I think in 2013 they were the most banned books in the country. But I think that you’ll see that with humor often, you know. Humor is a very subjective thing. Some people don’t like certain things and other people love them.  And I’ve been very, very fortunate that most people, including most parents and most teachers, have been incredibly supportive of the books. And so I try to focus on those people. I try to focus on the love.

I think the biggest criticism that I’ve gotten about the books is that they encourage children to question authority, and I don’t really think of that as a bad thing. I think children should question everything and everyone. That’s how we learn, by asking questions. I think it’s a very good thing. I think it’s a positive thing. And so if I have been instrumental in encouraging children to ask questions, I’m very proud of that.

I think there has always been a bit of subversiveness in my stories. I think it’s kind of like I just wanted to relate to the other kids in my class. And so it was almost like I was telling a story from our point of view. Like we’re the kids, you know, and so it’s us versus them. And I think there might be still a little bit of that in my books.

Dog Man

I think probably my favorite character is Dog Man. He was my first character as far as I can remember, and he still is kind of my first love because I love dogs so much and he’s kind of my love letter to dogs. He’s so silly, so crazy, and so enthusiastic, and everything I love about dogs is rolled up into that guy.

I have had dogs my whole life. Our last dog passed away a few years back, but we’re — my wife and I are about to go to a shelter and get a new one.

Yeah. We want to get a cat too and hopefully they can be best friends.

George, Harold and the Classics

One of the things about the graphic novels, especially with the Dog Man series is that I think it’s interesting to watch the characters from Captain Underpants grow up through their artwork. And so George and Harold are getting older, they’re getting more mature, they’re now in fifth grade and even their idea — their spelling is improving. Their spelling is actually perfect now. And their ideas are getting deeper and showing a little bit of maturity.

The last book, the one that just came out, A Tale of Two Kitties, is actually based on a Charles Dickens’ story, A Tale of Two Cities, at least with the themes. There is a theme in that novel about basically redemption through self-sacrifice, and I really loved that idea, and I wanted to take that idea and put it into the new Dog Man book.

And so George and Harold are actually borrowing themes from classic literature and turning them into silly stories. And the one that — the book that comes out in December is actually based on East of Eden by John Steinbeck. So they’re going off in very mature directions.

The writing (and drawing) process

The writing process is a little strange because I usually start out writing a book with a draft and usually the draft is not very complete. And so I’m doing a lot of thinking as I’m writing, and I start on page one and I finish on page two hundred and forty something, but a lot of times I don’t really know what’s going to happen next. And so I’m thinking and working it out as I do it.

I usually write and draw at the same time and so as I’m designing a page, the words — I know where the story needs to go so I try to write in the most efficient style as possible so I can move the story along and the words kind of come to me as I’m doing the drawings.

The process of making books if very laborious. It takes a lot of time and a lot of thought. But, you know, in a way I think kids feel like there’s some sort of magic to it, and I feel like that might be true as well. I feel like sometimes you sort of have to trust the characters and you have to — you don’t always know where things are going to come from. And you just have to plow forward and do your best and sometimes the stories come out of thin air sometimes.

I have a bit of a routine. Usually I get up very early in the morning. That’s when I feel that I’m most creative. And so I’ll do a lot of writing and illustrating from about 5 a.m. to about 8 and then usually have breakfast and keep working throughout the day, but it’s a very, very fun job.

There are times when it is very difficult. It can be very, very challenging, but it’s never not fun. In the times when it’s very challenging, it’s almost like a puzzle that really captures you and you have to figure it out and that’s what I like about it.

Dav Pilkey draws Captain Underpants

Captain Underpants was a character that I created when I was in second grade, and it all started because I was sitting in the classroom with my friends and our teacher was telling us a story and she happened to use the word underwear and we all started to laugh.

And I’m not sure why we all thought underwear was so funny, but she did not think it was funny at all. She was very upset and she said, “Hey, boys and girls, underwear is not funny.” And so we all laughed even harder of course. And I’ll never forget that moment. Everyone around us was laughing their heads off because of underwear, and I thought wow, underwear’s very powerful; I should do something with that.

So I took out a piece of paper and a pencil and started drawing this guy here, the waistband warrior, Captain Underpants. And he has been with me for almost 40 years I think. There we go.

Dav Pilkey draws George and Harold

People often ask me about the characters I’m about to draw here. They ask me if I ever knew anybody quite like George and Harold, and the answer of course is yes, because I knew myself. George and Harold are both based on me when I was a kid.

They started out as different sides of my personality because like most people, I can be quite different at different times. Sometimes I was very outgoing and wild and crazy and other times I was very shy and quiet. So I gave all my shy and quiet characteristics to this guy and all my wild and crazy characteristics to this guy here.

And so that’s how they started out. George and Harold are a lot like me. They make comics as well when they’re in school and they sometimes get in trouble like me. And they use their imagination and they make comics and they have this wonderful friendship. So this is George and Harold.

Dav Pilkey draws Dog Man

So the first character I ever created was a guy named Dog Man. And Dog Man came about I think because I just have always loved dogs and so when I was a child when I drew Dog Man, he wasn’t actually a police officer. He was basically a dog who was — he was always getting struck by lightning at just the right moment.

Whenever somebody needed a superhero, a cloud would come out of the sky and it would strike Dog Man with lightning and he would develop super powers and he would save the world. Now he saves the world in quite a different way, but he’s still a hero nonetheless.

Dav Pilkey draws Little Petey

This is one of the characters I’m very excited about. His name is Little Petey, and he’s the star of Dog Man, A Tale of Two Kitties and he’s also the star of the upcoming book Dog Man and Cat Kid

Little Petey started out life as an unwanted kitten, but he found his place and he found a home with Dog Man. And so he had a happy — he has a happy life after all.

"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan